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How the first food came to Beida this year / Famine relief in Western Sudan

1985 July 3
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by Paul Vallely

The wide-eyed children were holding out their empty bowls as the group of soldiers and policemen charged among them, lashing out with canes and leather whips.

Most of them fled, the ones who did not fall. But others were transfixed by the sight of the grain which had been emptied from sacks into a pile in front of the police station in the little town of Beida on the borders of the famine-stricken region of Darfour in the west of Sudan.

They squirmed through the gaunlet of violently thrashing men towards the sorghum. They had not seen proper food for four months. In that time they had been living off the stewed leaves from thorn trees and individual grains of corn combed from the sands of the market place.

Their parents dodged through the lines of soldiers or wrestled with them with a strength which belied their scrawny bodies and broomstick arms.

There were about 2,000 of them, mostly refugees from Chad but some of them local Sudanese villagers who had abandoned their homes and arid farmland to squat in the streets of the town in the hope of finding food there.

They swarmed over the grain which had been emptied from 30 bags into a heap on a large square of cloth. Within minutes it was gone, the local government official in charge ordered that no more of the newly-arrived food should be opened.

The refugees ran away, carrying the grain in their battered enamel bowls or in the folds of their grubby clothing.

This was the first distribution of international food aid in the town this year, though the first allocations arrived in Sudan eight months ago. The massive size of the country, which is as big as western Europe, along with a decaying transport system and a sluggish international relief effort, conspired to keep from the people of Darfour the aid donated to them. Beida is just one of hundreds of such places.

The rains have now hit the west of Sudan. Everywhere the wadis are full and their dirt roads across the vast acreages of desert have turned to mud, slowing transportation of food to a snail’s pace.

The United Nations is estimating that at least half a million people will die in the coming months.

This is not a famine like the one in Ethiopia where large numbers of the worst affected people are crammed dramatically into camps. In Beida, in Kongo Haraza and in Misterei to the south of Darfour’s capital of El Geneina, in Sibla, Silaya and Kulbus to the north, in towns like Kerenik to the east, the market places are full of thousands of homeless hungry people, living and dying in the porches of the humble brick-built shops, beneath the large laloob trees, by the side of the swollen wadis. They have no food and little shelter.

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